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E-books and the Independent Publisher

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E-books and the Independent Publisher

by Curt Matthews

Many participants involved in independent-press publishing have by now built good careers and successful companies by keeping clearly in mind what they can do really well versus what the big corporate publishing conglomerates can do.

Successful independent publishing is about niche titles, moderate author advances, low initial print runs, modest publicity campaigns, nickel squeezing left, right, and center, and a marketing approach that starts conservatively and builds incrementally if the market signals are positive enough.

Take these methods and turn them on their heads, and you have a description of how the corporate giants work. The way good independent publishers (and independent-press distributors too) get in trouble is by heeding the siren song of big-time publishing: “If I  could only afford the $50,000 advance, or the 12-city author tour, I could be a contender!”   

This is not to say that independent publishers don’t sometimes sell a huge number of copies of some titles. I have either published or distributed hundreds of titles that have sold in the range of 100,000 to 500,000 copies—easily enough to make the bestseller lists if their sales had occurred in a short period of time. But only one did make the list. Most had good sales over many months, some had solid sales over many years, and one of them has kept the lights on here for over 20 years.

Still, independent presses should not aspire to the big-publisher model, which, in terms of trade books, is not, in fact, very profitable. If we publish a hot title, we can enjoy the ride, but our focus should be on mastering the niche publishing model, which can be low risk and quite profitable.

Should there be an independent-press model for handling e-books, just as there is for printed books? I think there will be, but first let’s get past some false hopes.

What You May Know That Isn’t So

The advent of the e-book has put many independent publishers into a state of wild excitement because they imagine that they will now be able to compete directly with the big publishers without having to invest any money to speak of.

Two big ideas are driving this excitement.

First, e-books eliminate the expense of a large print run. Any number of electronic copies can be produced at negligible cost, and the cost of warehousing and shipping these copies is trivial.

Second, with e-books, publicity and expenses largely disappear because of the Internet. Just arrange for your title to go viral on the blogs and social networking sites, and huge results will be achieved without a large publicity budget or fancy connections. Who cares about a New York Times book review now that we have the Web?

Both these ideas are false. The first conflates availability with good marketing, which is a much broader and more challenging task. The fact that a book is available in a warehouse or on a server is a necessary but not a sufficient basis for a successful sales effort. Most of the hundreds of thousands of new titles produced now every year are “available” but have almost no sales.

The books that do sell have been brought to the favorable attention of the people who decide which titles, out of the hundreds of thousands of new ones produced every year, are worth anybody’s trouble.

Independent-press marketing is more limited in scope than what the big houses do. It is largely a question of convincing the opinion makers in your niche that you have a relevant product so they can get out the word. There is no need (and not a big enough budget) to convince the multitudes that they need your book.

But successful independent -press marketing still requires a significant investment of time, expertise, and money. This is just as true for e-books promoted on the Web as it is for printed books sold in bookstores or anywhere else. Also, the hardware and software needed to create, protect, and distribute e-books turns out to be quite expensive. There is no magic bullet.

The second idea is wrong, and more wrong every day, because of what is sometimes called the fallacy of composition. If you stand up at the ballpark when there is an exciting play, you will be able to see better. If everybody stands up, you will not be able to see better, and maybe you will not be able to see at all if you are short.

How many titles can “go viral” at the same time? Does anyone imagine that the Random House publicity staff has not yet heard about the Internet? Getting the attention of the big blogs will soon be just as hard as cracking the New York Times.

And there are these inconvenient facts: Getting much attention for a title that exists only in an e-book edition is very difficult. Some very important review publications hugely relied on by libraries cannot do a thing with an e-book.

Also, the assumption that e-books can be produced very cheaply works against this format: If a publisher had confidence in the value of the book, wouldn’t the publisher have risked a print run? This may be old-think, but it is still the dominant attitude.

How E-books Will Hurt Big Corporate Publishers

So this e-technology will not allow independent presses to compete head-to-head with the corporate giants. (Nor, again, should we want to do that, even if we could.) But the advent of the e-book is far more problematic for the big guys than it is for us, for two reasons.

First, the titles that sell best in e-book editions will be the same ones that sell best in print versions. Bestsellers are bestsellers. The big corporate publishers will find that their low-priced e-editions are cannibalizing the high-priced hardcovers that support the big advances.

Our sales will be less damaged by e-book cannibalization. Why?

The bestseller approach requires a very big advance sale of hardcover copies into the bookstores and an intense, focused publicity campaign. If this works as planned, the book-buying audience will be well informed of the potential bestseller’s existence, and a high level of sales will result.

But if an e-edition is available from first publication, a great many of these sales will be of the much cheaper e-edition of the title, and a lot of the print copies in the bookstores will be returned. Every print copy returned will pretty much cancel out the profit on an e-book sale.

Independent presses, on the other hand, don’t attempt the big advance sale of print copies into the bookstores or the high-powered publicity campaigns that the big publishers are so good at. This greatly reduces our exposure to the return of print copies. Also, because we don’t pay big advances, and because most of our books are published in inexpensive paperback editions, any cannibalization that does occur will not cost us much.

Second, the-books that are going to be pirated will also be bestsellers. Thieves steal things that are easy to fence. Will the hackers be attracted to what we publish? Actually, there are already niche Web sites that put our books up without permission, but usually a stiff letter gets them taken right down. I am afraid the bestsellers are going to be pirated in the millions of copies, and there will be no single Web site to which an effective letter can be written.

How E-books Will Help Independent Publishers

Just as they will be less hurt by e-book technology than the big publishers, independent publishers will realize some positive benefits. A little history is useful here.

The independent-press movement arose because of a deep cultural change. Americans used to support our sense of self-importance by consuming products that implied that we belonged to some large, prestigious group. To be middle class was to subscribe to Life magazine or the Saturday Evening Post. It was also important to be a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

These days, to be respected, people feel a need to demonstrate a certain quirkiness or idiosyncrasy in their reading. The magazine I like best is Wooden Boat. Surely you subscribe to something a little odd too. I would be embarrassed to be caught reading a Book-of-the-Month Club edition.

For the book business, this cultural change led to the explosion of niche publishing that has occurred over the last few decades. The Web is a fabulous tool for promoting special interests and therefore special-interest books. There is no need to “go viral,” or to be noticed on the most popular sites, if there are a hundred sites (and there almost always are) devoted to any conceivable interest, no matter how narrow; and any site will be delighted to pay attention to a book devoted to its particular topic.

But note that so far, very few of these niche/specialty Web sites sell e-books. Many of them sell print editions because all they have to do to generate revenue is set up an agreement with a supplier and upload the book data and images. But for them to make money selling e-books, they will have to overcome significant software, licensing, and device challenges, and they are unlikely to take on these challenges until viable patterns of e-book selling have emerged much more clearly than they have so far. These patterns will emerge, but when is anybody’s guess.

The E-book Picture in Two Paragraphs

To sum up: E-book publishing will not enable independent presses to compete head-to-head with the big corporate publishers; the cost in time and money to get the necessary marketing and distribution done for e-books is not much less than for print books. You still need a print edition to get much respect or attention from the reviewers, and the niche Web sites are not yet ready to peddle e-books effectively.

But with these reservations, the e-book format is a brilliant fit with the long-standing cultural trend that has so hugely benefited niche publishing in the past and is supercharging it today. The future looks very bright for independent publishing—if not so good for the other guys.

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group, the first independent press distributor and now the second largest.



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